Washington National Airport is:
b) somewhat dilapidated;
e) the area's most popular airport by a long shot.
While a continuing debate on the airport's safety--(c)--will intensify as a result of last week's fatal crash of an Air Florida jet after take-off, few would disagree with the correctness of the other four answers in this multiple-choice quiz.
Despite all the problems that make National a far less attractive place than either Dulles International or Baltimore/Washington International, National's convenience and accessibility have made it the airport people love to hate.
Bemoaning the traffic jams, the crush at the ticket counters and the seedy, down-at-the-heels appearance of many of the airport's facilities, passengers nevertheless have continued to flock to National in ever greater numbers. That trend was halted only recently by the recession-caused nationwide decline in air traffic and by flight cutbacks necessitated after the firing of striking air traffic controllers.
National has continued to hold onto close to a 70 percent share of the Washington/Baltimore area's airline traffic over the last 15 years as overall passenger traffic in the metropolitan area doubled. National served 6.7 million airline passengers in 1965, 13.5 million in 1980.
Yes, it's congested, everyone admits. "So what?" one airline official said. "It's congested at Tysons Corner on a weekend too."
What impact last week's tragic accident will have on the airport and its operations is uncertain. For years, some local officials have kept up a steady barrage of criticism against the airport, contending that it should be closed or its use limited because of its fairly short 6,855-foot main runway--compared with three, 10,000-foot-plus runways at Dulles--its ground congestion, the twisting course planes are required to take in arrivals and departures, and the noise the aircraft make. But the FAA and the airlines have always contended the airport is safe, and air passengers on the whole have not been scared off. Federal investigators looking into last week's accident are going to be examining the airport itself and its takeoff and landing rules to see if they contributed at all to the accident.
Meanwhile, this winter, the owners and operators of National--the Department of Transportation and its Federal Aviation Administration--have begun to take steps they hope will begin to alleviate the problems of congestion, noise and dilapidation and to try, paradoxically, to cut into National's popularity at the same time.
The catalyst is the implementation of a new metropolitan airports policy, a Reagan administration plan, almost identical to a Carter administration plan before it, that is designed to reduce use--therefore noise and congestion--at National and promote more service at vastly underutilized Dulles, the other federally owned airport.
Federal policy toward National always has been somewhat curious. While the government has been limiting flights there for years, it has at the same time made it even more attractive by subsidizing the construction of a subway there, spawning even more building and development nearby.
About 10 years in the making, the new policy for National:
* Reduces the number of commercial airline takeoffs and landings--called slots--from 40 to 37 an hour and increases the smaller commuters' allowable flights from eight to 11 an hour. Shifting the numbers into different categories won't alter the balance much, since five carriers using "airline" slots in the past have been moved into the commuter category because they use planes with fewer than 56 seats. A "loophole" that had allowed New York Air and other airlines to operate more flights than they had slots by using visual flight rules has been closed.
General aviation--private and business flying--retains a dozen slots an hour, though many more GA flights can be and are accommodated when pilots use visual flight rules during good weather, something the airlines are no longer allowed.
* Prohibits jet flights between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. each day. Although there were 22 or 23 flights in the 10 p.m. hour at one time, there are currrently only eight airline flights scheduled during that period. After March 1, aircraft meeting very stringent noise regulations can operate "after" hours. Only de Havilland's barely audible Dash 7 currently meets those standards, airport officials say, adding that they expect few, if any, Dash 7 flights after 10.
* Allows nonstop flights of up to 1,000 miles from National. From 1966 until last year, the airlines had voluntarily kept their nonstop flights to within 650 miles, with the exception of seven cities outside the perimeter that had nonstop service in 1965. Last year, the FAA put the 650-mile limitation in its regulations to prohibit several airlines from breaking their voluntary arrangement. New nonstop service to New Orleans, Ft. Lauderdale and Kansas City have been added by airlines from National under the new perimeter.
* Sets an annual passenger limit of 16 million a year.
To residents near the airport and along the Potomac who have complained about National's aircraft noise, the first noticeable effect of the new policy will come March 1. That's when the 10 p.m. curfew on jet noise goes into effect, James A. Wilding, the FAA's director of metropolitan Washington airports, said in a recent interview. Airline officials met last week at the FAA to reshuffle March and April schedules to accommodate the change. Beginning March 1, Wilding explained, a "steel curtain" comes down at 10 p.m., totally barring jet departures from National. Flights scheduled to arrive before 10 that are delayed for reasons out of the airline's control will be allowed to land up until 10:30 p.m., when the "steel curtain" on arrivals comes down. The interview took place before last week's disaster, and Wilding declined to talk about the airport afterward.
Wilding predicted that the 10 p.m. curfew would have an effect on airline scheduling in the 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. hour as well, possibly cutting down on flights during that period. An airline may be less likely to schedule departures at National at 9:45 p.m., he said by way of example, and risk the possibility that a plane gets "captured" there because of delays.
"If the plane can't get out by 10, it'll be here at 7 a.m.," Wilding said. He guessed that airlines might reduce their operations in the 9-to-10 hour to between 20 and 25 flights, down from the 37 the airlines will be allowed under the new rules.
Unless changes are made at National as a result of the accident, the 16 million passenger cap is considered to be the key to the end of growth at National and the beginning of growth at Dulles, which served just about 2.3 million passengers in the 12 months ending Sept. 30, 1981.
Although the figures are not yet in for 1981, Wilding said National probably will have served between 14.2 million and 14.3 million passengers last year. Before the recession, the monthly figures had been running at an annual rate of about 15.5 million, not far off from the cap. Under the new policy, when the cap is about to be reached, the FAA will force the carriers to reduce flights to keep within it.
The pressures on National--and other popular and restricted airports--became intense after passage of the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act, which gave new and existing airlines the opportunities to begin new routes. Not so long ago, National was served by 10 commercial airlines and a handful of commuters. Now it is served by no fewer than 18 airlines and 13 commuters. As a result of airline route changes, the entry of new airlines and strike-induced cutbacks, some airlines' flights at National are half what they once were.
Everyone at DOT and FAA who has been involved with the National Airport issue has been hoping that discussions scheduled to begin later this month among the airlines will result in the voluntary shifting of flights to some destinations--possibly Florida flights --from National to Dulles or BWI. That would relieve pressure on National and avert the ultimate reaching of the cap.
"The other option is that growth goes back up after the recession and we have to reduce slots and squeeze them out one at a time," Wilding said, without relish. "I really believe there is an opportunity here . . . to steer away from what will be a terribly difficult slot allocation downstream."
Airlines in the past have been reluctant to take a chance individually moving profitable flights at National to Dulles because they say they would be at a competitive disadvantage. Despite contentions of Dulles promoters that enormous numbers of people would rather use Dulles than National, airlines tell a different story. Officials generally say their experience is that passengers tend to prefer a one-stop flight to National to a nonstop flight at Dulles, located 26 miles from the White House.
Critics of National often contend that the airport remains open because it is Congress' "baby" and the legislators don't want to end convenient service to their home districts. But airline officials say there is a perception outside this city that Dulles is too far away. "Whenever we talk to a community . . . about bringing service to Dulles, they say 'absolutely not,' " USAir Chairman and President Edwin I. Colodny said.
At one time, Pan American official William J. Moon recalled, the airlines agreed among themselves to move out of National all flights over 600 miles, but that plan was thwarted by political pressure from the late Richard J. Daley, Chicago's powerful mayor. Chicago was 612 miles from National.
"The issue is day trips," another airline official said. "It is possible to make day trips to Washington from a substantial portion of the country and go out again the same day. A considerable portion of the traffic here is inbound--not originating here--and going home.
"No matter what DOT says, you can't make the same day trips at Dulles," he added. Three miles from downtown Washington, National is within five to 10 minutes of the White House, Capitol Hill, the Pentagon, most other government agencies, the downtown area, Crystal City and the complex at Rosslyn, he noted. "That's the Washington that inbound people are dealing with," he said.
Implementation of the new airports policy has meant that National's owners have been moving forward to make some long-planned, long-awaited improvements to the 41 1/2-year-old airport. Located on 680 acres, National opened officially on June 16, 1941, a legacy of the Great Depression, having been constructed with funds from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Public Works Administration (PWA).
No longer is "mega-bucks" radical surgery contemplated, however; just a face-lift, according to Wilding. A consultant team has been selected to develop a master plan for some improvements, items that could include some kind of connector--possibly a covered moving sidewalk--to integrate the Metro station with the North Terminal, the closest terminal building to the subway. A moving sidewalk has a great deal of appeal, Wilding said, especially if the North Terminal is rebuilt. "That's fairly ambitious but within the realm of possibility," he said. Assuming a plan goes forward, it will be between four and five years before any major changes would be completed, he said.
There is no plan to add to the public parking facilities, which now can accommodate 4,643 cars. "We are trying not to be too accommodating to the private automobile; we're trying to discourage its use here," Wilding said. Already, he said, about 15 or 16 percent of National's total passengers have been using the Metro, a percentage expected to grow as the system grows.
The Metro rail presence made the North Terminal, considered in left field before, a significantly more desirable place, Wilding said. It could even replace the main terminal in popularity in the future if renovated, he predicted. That also would give the airport a chance to reshuffle some airline counters and gates. For instance, Wilding said, New York Air, which started service just 13 months ago, has become the third largest airline at National in terms of passengers, but has been "living in" with Northwest and Trans World airlines. Developing the North Terminal "would help us and them find a home more suitable for that level of activity," he said. Right now, New York Air is forced to funnel some of its passengers not through a normal gate, but through a side door near the ladies' room in the NWO-TWA concourse.
Renovation requires money, but that wouldn't be hard to get. "Our preference is to find the money and build and rent space, but we could look to the airlines for money," Wilding said. Because the carriers make money at National, they have been willing in the past to spend money on capital improvements. Piedmont Aviation built its own terminal building, and American, TWA and NWO have built their own concourses.
National has long been a money-maker for the government, and could be downright lucrative if the government decided to price access to the airport as a scarce commodity. Now it seeks primarily to recover its costs. For the year ending Sept. 30, 1981, the FAA showed an $11.7 million profit at National. It lost $7.8 million at Dulles, leaving a net profit for the two of $3.9 million. Dulles losses were increased when the government waived a large portion of the landing and mobile-lounge fees at Dulles to encourage airlines to move some flights there.
It hasn't worked yet. Air carrier operations at Dulles during the 12 months ending in September 1981, the last period for which full figures are available, were off 27 percent from the prior 12-month period. National had 199,499 air carrier operations, off 2.5 percent, during the same 12-month period, mostly attributed to a 12 percent decline in September because of the strike-induced flight cutbacks.
Recently, Dulles has been losing out to BWI as airlines that have chosen to add flights outside of National have picked BWI on grounds that it draws passengers to and from the Baltimore area as well as Washington.
In the 12 months ended last September, the commercial airlines accounted for almost 58 percent of National Airport's total operations, and they carried about 92.5 percent of the passengers served. The commuters carried slightly more than 5 percent of National's total passengers with about 14 percent of the total flights. The private flying sector accounted for about 28 percent of the total flights at National, carrying under 2.5 percent of the total passengers.
Airline officials resent the significant proportion of private aircraft using National, contending they generally use the same amount of air traffic control time and runway time as the aircraft of the airlines and commuters but carry a minuscule percentage of passengers. Periodically someone brings up the idea of moving private aircraft out of National--but it's considered impossible politically.
Officials of airlines contacted after the accident said it hadn't altered at all their belief that the airport is safe. "I don't think, based on the very preliminary information available, that the Air Florida accident had anything to do with the air traffic situation or the airport," New York Air President Neal Meehan said, echoing the sentiments of other airline officials.
Last week's crash was the first fatal accident at National in more than 32 years, they pointed out, an admirable record for any airport. National in 1980 was the 14th busiest in the world and the ninth busiest in the United States, according to statistics collected by the Airport Operators Council International. "The critical thing is the safety record is so good; that's got to be recognized," one official said.
"You can say it's a difficult airport, but National is not particularly unique," another airline official said. "There are lots of airports around the world that are difficult; lots of them are downtown and congested . . . and we operate in a lot of airports around the world with short runways."
Major accidents have occurred at larger, allegedly "safer" U.S. airports, officials recalled, noting that 92 died in 1974 when a TWA jet crashed in the Virginia countryside on its approach to Dulles in a storm.
Other major accidents within the last 10 years have occurred at Chicago's O'Hare International, New York's John F. Kennedy International, Miami International, Boston's Logan International and San Diego.
Was National itself an element in the Air Florida accident? "Probably not," officials and aviation experts interviewed late last week said. The fact that the runway is short doesn't mean it's dangerous, they said. Normal operating procedures require a pilot to abort a flight if the aircraft hasn't reached a certain speed at a certain point on each runway, they note. "The key is to find out what caused the accident; something didn't work the way it was supposed to work," an official said. "This looks like a bad weather accident that could have happened anywhere."
Ironically, one official said, the government and the airlines have been seeking a 550-foot extension of National's main runway to the north to provide a 750-foot safety overrun, which is possible, by filling in the bottom of Roaches Run. But the overrun has been thwarted by opposition from some of the very local officials who contend the runway is too short, they said.
Too, the Boeing 737 involved in the accident is a short-field aircraft that needs less than a third of National's runway to take off or land. The plane was originally designed for use on primitive fields in less developed countries, a Boeing spokesman said, adding that it is licensed to land on grass, dirt and gravel airfields. The 737 is designed to use no more than 1,800 feet in takeoffs and landings here, something Boeing demonstrated at the 1972 Transpo at Dulles, he said.
Whether the accident will increase overall pressure on the airlines to move flights out of National is unclear. "There shouldn't be but there will be," New York Air's Meehan said.